Press Release 07/2010

Ethics Council begins consultations on questions of reproductive medicine

The central question of Council member Jochen Taupitz' talk was how far the Embryonenschutzgesetz (Embryo Protection Act) is still appropriate today. He established that despite a large number of changes in reproductive medicine and developmental biology, the Embryo Protection Act has now remained in force for twenty years without amendment. He stated that this was problematical in that the Act contains provisions of criminal law, which for constitutional reasons need to be particularly precisely worded.

Taupitz presented an outline of the goals of the Embryo Protection Act and pointed out provisions which have either been restricted by the latest case law – for example, the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, Oberlandesgericht Rostock (Rostock Higher Regional Court) and the Federal Court of Justice – or which in his opinion may be given varying interpretations or are controversial from the point of view of legal policy. These included the prohibition of ovum donation, of artificial insemination with the semen of a deceased person, of creating and using embryos for a purpose not serving their preservation, of surrogate motherhood and of transferring more than three embryos into a woman. Taupitz also said that it was necessary to ask how far it is justified to protect the in vitro embryo under the Embryo Protection Act more rigorously than the growing embryo or foetus is protected under current abortion law. He said that it was largely undisputed that the Embryo Protection Act had to be amended; however, discussion was still needed as to whether the Act should be supplemented or made more precise, or whether it should be replaced by a more broadly drafted Reproductive Medicine Act.

According to Council member Regine Kollek, the new developments in reproductive medicine technology, the discourse on ethics conducted in the past ten years and the latest court decisions mean that there is a need for new discussion. However, she stated that it was not clear how far the scientific and technical developments made it mandatory to reform the Embryo Protection Act.

In her paper, Kollek presented the technical possibilities and limits of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), polar body diagnosis (PBD), preimplantation diagnosis (PID) and other reproductive medicine procedures. In view of the relatively low success rates and the relatively high rate of multiple births of IVF and ICSI, not only blastocyst transfer is gaining in significance, but also PID, which is often used abroad. In connection with the diagnosis of illness, it is increasingly used to identify dispositions for illness, but also to avoid illnesses and to choose the sex or what is known as a saviour sibling. In addition, PID is also often used to increase the rate of pregnancy following IVF, although there is no evidence to support this effect.

Kollek said that in the course of the debates on an amendment of the Embryo Protection Act or the introduction of a Reproductive Medicine Act, it was necessary to consider how far limits should be imposed on these new developments. Here, the social and environmental factors must also be taken into account: these can result in unwanted childlessness and encourage the use of artificial insemination.

In the following discussion, the Council members were initially interested in very concrete aspects of the topic: IVF statistics, the rate of termination of pregnancy after IVF and subsequent prenatal diagnosis (PND) and the assumption of costs by statutory health insurance. In the further course of the discussion, the question was considered as to what consequences would arise from making the Embryo Protection Act more precise or drafting comprehensive provisions as part of a Reproductive Medicine Act and how far the Ethics Council could give support to the legislature.

In November 2009, when the Ethics Council drew up its working programme for 2010, the topic of reproductive medicine was already placed on the agenda. An internal Council working group will commence work in August.